Identifying the Charlatan

Updated on February 22, 2017
Take steps that lead you somewhere
Take steps that lead you somewhere

Charlatans and Conmen

There was a warning sign – I just didn’t know it at the time. It came several years before I met him. My good friend – we’ll call her ‘Maeve’ – asked me if I could spend some time on the phone with her partner, ‘Dave’ who was finishing off his course in ‘life coaching’ and needed a subject in order to get his “qualification”. My blood curdled a little. I agreed, saying that while I had no need of it, I could pretend to be someone who did.

While offering wise advice is often a much-needed ability to everyone at some point in their lives, ‘life coaching’ appears to mostly attract people who couldn’t be bothered to actually study psychology, and instead want to earn a quick buck from people who either can’t afford a professional trained to deal with their issues, or they feel a stigma is attached to asking for professional help. So, when Maeve told me Dave was focusing on life coaching women exclusively - to ostensibly become better women - my first thought was, “Oh, is he calling it ‘Mansplaining, Inc.’?”

He never called me.

It’s not like women don’t already have to deal with men telling us what to do and how to do it, and now here was someone who was heading into that last refuge of charlatanism in the 21st century, ready to take money from vulnerable women in order to teach them how to be “better, stronger” women.

They arrived from America to spend a few months living in Cape Town, and had been offered temporary shelter via my landlords. The spare room, a small space next to my apartment had been readied for them.

The extended hug from him on arrival from the airport was awkward. The 3-second rule applies unless you’re going in a different direction from a simple greeting. He lingered. I said, “Well, ok then”, she smiled at me, he held onto me. I tried to step back. He hung on.

They unloaded their luggage and took it up the stairs to their room. He regaled me with how much of it was his, how he’s into clothing, and then the whammy: “I’m a feminist”. As I recall it was folded into telling me how he’s really in tune with his ‘female side’ by being into clothing. I raised my eyebrows at that “men are from Mars” nonsensical statement and said nothing as he continued to tell me how he chooses Maeve’s clothes for her because he knows what suits her - and the red flags started flapping in the breeze of his monologue.

Somewhere in the barrage of sound, he also started talking about “submission” - as in being submissive is very important to their relationship. It didn’t take long for anyone to figure out who was supposed to be submissive, and who was not.

He was a “feminist” who thinks all women are into clothing, who also believes women should be submissive (as he was to prove in subsequent days), and who controlled his partner’s behavior, thoughts, and words, to the point where the only way to get any semblance of the woman I had once known was to physically get her away from his presence. With him around, she became little more than an agreeable drone, or puppet.

I took them down to meet their hosts and my friend generously bought dinner for us. A pleasant evening ensued with everyone getting to know each other. Well, let me clarify: Patty was delighted by Maeve, while Dave focused his attention on Patty’s husband, John. He was not as delighted. By the end of the evening, after hours spent listening as Dave rambled on about his illegal/unconventional property deals from which he made a ton of money, how he had saved Amsterdam’s Red Light District single-handedly, and other such braggadocio, John was convinced that it was all a ball of wax, the guy was not terribly intelligent, and was overall unimpressed.

I got the full experience the following morning when Dave arrived at my door to “chat”. I made coffee, and what followed was an excruciating lifetime of listening to this stranger brag about his superior accomplishments, how gifted he is at everything he does, and how many women he had “coached”.

It was not an interesting conversation. It wasn’t a conversation. I was merely an object to sit and admire his rambling about how special he is. I was simply there to listen. My blood started to boil as he launched into details of the women he had “coached”. He told me their names and a full description of their issues – at which point, I start wondering if there are any organizations that manage the ethics of their members, because getting him permanently removed would be a great option. But that is the problem with these charlatans – they have no ethics, no morality, and no professional standards. They have sales skills, are able to start a business online, adapt cool but meaningless terminology designed to impress those unable to analyze bullshit when they hear it, and pick up humans with low self-esteem. There is no supervisory organization, no universal standard of practice to support clients. It is an entirely unregulated business that exists purely on vulnerable people needing answers to their questions. They depend on their ‘client’ believing that the more they have to pay, the better the service they will receive – a flawed premise of capitalism, but one the charlatans rely on for their bank balance.

I interrupted the flow at one point to ask Dave if he had ever done any therapy or self-analysis – understanding one’s own life is important when developing empathy for others. He squirmed uncomfortably, then deflected, and then changed the subject. I asked him a few more questions he clearly had no intention, or ability, to answer, and heard instead how gifted he had been at ‘helping/coaching women’ throughout his life. It was another day or two before I started to understand why he had decided to focus his attentions on women. Most women are raised to “be nice”, to respect authority so when a predator appears on the horizon and is quickly able to identify those women, all they then have to do is encourage the person to open up to them and reveal their weaknesses. It is all the psychopath needs to pounce. Within 10 minutes of Dave’s monologue, I hoped he wouldn’t ask me anything about myself, because I had no intention of telling him anything. Thankfully, he was only interested in himself.

A common answer to any question about their qualifications is a reference to how someone in high school thought they were like Oprah because they advised people so profoundly. This is the birth of the salesman: when you manage to convince your high school friends you’re wiser than WebMD, and you surround yourself with people less intelligent who will believe your sales pitch.

Over breakfast, Dave regales us with his all-important opinions from how I live “like a pauper” (having an expensive lifestyle is a desire for many quacks, and the need to feel superior to others is a sure sign of the Narcissist), to how we are all failures and losers (generally, life coaching training courses discourage their graduates from being judgmental, but Dave has issues). The constant negative terminology sends up more red flags. He had known me for less than a handful of hours at this point, and has made zero effort to get to know me.

Further clues came and I started to understand the mess Maeve was in.

When you first meet someone you like, most times reason goes out the window. But, generally speaking, it starts to return in time – unless the person is such a good con, that they know exactly how to manipulate you into staying, many times convincing you that you can leave at any time. It is when you get so bamboozled by someone’s sales pitch that you lose your ability to think rationally and to make your own decisions, that is a dangerous place to be.

Dave’s only success is in manipulating someone into being his submissive. He gives just enough independence before pulling her back into him. He analyzes what she needs, and plays on those weaknesses, while praising her strengths. Does she need to feel maternal? He plays the man-child. Does she need to feel independent? He “allows” her to go and play for the day, constantly reminding her that she has power (if she’d only use it, he would repeat).

The red flags flapped wildly as I started to observe how he behaved with Maeve. One illustrative conversation came over dinner. We started talking about human trafficking and prostitution. Dave was an expert, of course. He told us he once spent several hours having a conversation with a hooker in Amsterdam. He also spent some time with her pimp. Maeve and I started to push back on his views – something she seemed to do rarely and appeared bolstered by my willingness to argue with him. The emotional abuser appeared: as women we knew nothing, and our opinions didn’t matter. The level of his discomfort was revealing, as was his defensiveness. He had made it clear that “submissive” was an important word in his lexicon, and it was clearly a disturbing experience to get push-back from two women. So disturbing, in fact, that he tried to continue the discussion the following morning, with much the same result.

The ego of the emotionally abusive person is both flawed and massive: who else can think of the world as a shopping market of vulnerable people all waiting with baited breath to hand over their money to his extraordinary tableau of skills?

By judging others as being inferior, he exposes his own inferiority even while trying to sell his brand of chicanery. The charlatans who practice ‘life coaching’ inevitably live a mess of a life: incapable of self-analysis and a deeper, meaningful understanding of human psychology - especially their own. They are frequently failures in the various pursuits they’ve tried throughout their lives, and ‘life coaching’ gives them the ego boost they desperately need. Convincing people to rely on them, believe in them, fulfills a need that was the reason they became narcissistic in the first place.

When you meet any person who loves to talk about themselves in a way that presents them as either a genius or a victim, take a step back and peer hard through the curtain of their words. If that person is trying to enlist you to their ‘life coaching’ enterprise, listen closely to what they say, how they say it, and whether they have a natural curiosity about you. They won’t force you to reveal anything, but will first establish a base of honesty and trust. If you’re quiet, they won’t try and sell you on how special and gifted they are, they will gently draw you out. If they’re qualified to do what they say they can do, they won’t be bragging about it, sharing your information with others, and nor will they be boasting about how much money they can make by signing up those who need help.

They will show respect, real humility, and caring. There will be no bullying or manipulation. They will not try to diminish or demean whatever you say. At the end of the day, you need to be your own ‘life coach’, rather than put your trust, emotions, and faith in a charlatan with a certificate printed off the internet.

Coaching is about empathy, asking the right questions, listening. Emotional abuse, manipulation, self-aggrandizement, an open acknowledgement that they’re in it to make money – those are cons and quacks.

Ernest Hemingway, “Develop a built-in bullshit detector if you want to survive.”

If you want to thrive, you also need to develop analytical skills that can step away from any emotional involvement and truly ask the questions the charlatan doesn’t want to answer. Be your best friend, and never give up the ability to protect yourself.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers


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      • Luke Holm profile image


        3 years ago

        I think there is a spacing error in your forth-fifth paragraph.

        At first I thought the article was more of a rant than about "Life Coaching," but I can see why you placed it in this category after reading it entirely through. Does the title hint at a paradox if the person telling you not to listen to another's life coaching is the one warning you?

        I'm kidding, of course. It's always important to think objectively and see past the veil. Getting beyond ego is hard to do, especially if you are invested in the person. I think your story shares a good message (as paradoxical as it may be). Thank you for sharing!


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